EWG Investigates: Pruitt’s Toothless Poultry Law

Scott Pruitt, President Trump’s nominee to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, has a penchant for making misleading claims about his record on the environment.

A compelling example comes from Pruitt’s time as an Oklahoma state senator. In February 2002, Representative Mark Liotta wrote a bill to address the widespread problem of water pollution from chicken manure generated by factory poultry farms. Phosphorus, the primary pollutant in poultry manure, can trigger toxic algae blooms, threatening rivers, lakes and other waterways.

Liotta's bill would have restricted new or expanding poultry operations within a 100-year flood plain or within defined buffer zones, including within 1.5 miles of a state scenic river or outstanding resource water. The Illinois River, which flows from Arkansas into Oklahoma, carries both designations. The proposed legislation would have also prohibited spreading chicken manure on land within the buffer zones.

But by April 2002, Pruitt co-sponsored an amended version of the legislation, which was substantially weakened.

  • It no longer prohibited land application of poultry waste in buffer zones, but instead merely required poultry operations to have a plan for managing the waste.
  • It reduced the buffer zones around scenic rivers and outstanding resource waters to one mile.
  • Most significantly, Pruitt's bill only placed limits on new or expanded poultry operations by out-of-state corporations – a gaping loophole because corporations don’t usually build feeding operations, local farmers do. Corporations own the chickens and enter into contracts with local farmers.

Despite these flaws, Pruitt boasted about the bill.

“[We] want [poultry operations] to occur in an environmentally safe way that doesn't threaten the water quality of northeast Oklahoma,” he said in an interview with KOTV-TV of Tulsa, Okla.

A look at the Illinois River watershed today shows that the law had little beneficial effect on Oklahoma’s environment.

Using aerial photos from Google and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Imagery Program, EWG analysts found 14 new or expanded factory chicken farms established within a mile of a scenic river or outstanding resource water. In total, the new and expanded operations created a net increase of  33 new poultry barns between 2003 and 2016.

example of new factory farm installed from 2003 to 2016

Source: Google Earth Imagery & USDA National Agricultural Imagery Program

Aerial photos comparing sites between 2003 and 2016 are available here.

Analysts scanned over 1,600 square miles of aerial photos of the Illinois River watershed on both sides of the Oklahoma-Arkansas state line, identifying 112 poultry operations with 449 barns in Oklahoma. Results were then compared to images from 2003 and 2013 to determine if the operation had previously existed, was newly created or had expanded.

Poultry operations in the Illinois Watershed in Oklahoma


Either these new or expanding operations fall within the exemptions built into the weakened law, or Pruitt’s office failed to enforce the law.

EWG’s search of court and administrative filings found no evidence that Pruitt attempted to investigate or sanction these poultry operators while serving as attorney general from 2011 to 2016. EWG also filed an open records request with the Oklahoma attorney general’s office for documents on enforcement actions by the office and its communications about enforcement with the state Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry, and other agencies, but has not yet received a response.                                                  

It's another example of Pruitt holding something up as an environmental victory that, upon further examination, doesn't hold water. In the case of protection of the Illinois River, this has become a key question in Pruitt’s nomination.

In his testimony before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, Pruitt sought to characterize a 2013 agreement as a historic effort to clean up the river, which is threatened by hundreds of thousands of tons of manure from millions of chickens raised in factory farms.

But the agreement developed by Pruitt and his Arkansas counterpart actually gave polluters more time to meet cleanup goals for the Illinois River and suspended any enforcement action by the attorney general’s office. In addition, Pruitt closed the attorney general’s Environmental Protection Unit and declined to pursue litigation against poultry companies polluting the river after poultry industry interests donated $40,000 to his 2010 campaign.

More details on EWG’s methodology and additional maps are available here.

2003 - 2016 Site Comparisons

Photo showing new CAFOs

Photo showing new CAFOs

Photo showing new CAFOs

Photo showing new CAFOs

Photo showing new CAFOs

Photo showing new CAFOs

Photo showing new CAFOs

Photo showing new CAFOs

Photo showing new CAFOs

Photo showing new CAFOs

Photo showing new CAFOs

Photo showing new CAFOs

Photo showing new CAFOs

Source for all images: Google Earth Imagery & USDA National Agricultural Imagery Program

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Enacted on April 15, 2002, Oklahoma HB 2349 restricts the construction or expansion of poultry feeding operations within one mile of any designated scenic river area, as specified by the state Scenic Rivers Act, or outstanding resource waters, as designated by the state Water Resources Board. The law also limits expansion of existing poultry barns except under certain circumstances. However, the law also narrowly applies its restrictions to out-of-state corporations, significantly weakening its impact.

To examine the scope of the exemptions and the enforcement of the law, EWG conducted a proximity analysis within the Illinois River watershed of all poultry operations inside a one-mile radius of protected waterways. Among the waterways sampled were Ballard Creek, Barren Fork, Dennison Hollow, England Hollow, Evansville Creek, Flint Creek, Green Creek, Peach Eater Creek, Sager Creek, Scraper Hollow, Shell Branch, Tahlequah Creek, Tyner Creek and the Upper Illinois River.

Map of the Illinois River Watershed

Scenic rivers, outstanding resource waters and one-mile minimum buffer areas.
Source: ORWB, EWG.


Data showing enforcement actions related to the location of poultry operations were only available from the state through an open records request. As inquiries were not immediately returned, analysts assessed aerial photos for the evidence of poultry facilities, typically represented by elongated buildings with steel roofs and feeder bins attached to one side. In the absence of ground verification, EWG is highly confident in its efforts to detect poultry barns with high resolution photography.


Picture of poultry barns

Eight barn poultry operations located in Adair County, Okla.
Source: Google Earth, 2016.


Analysts scanned over 1,600 square miles of Illinois River watershed imagery from 2016 and found 473 operations housing birds in 1,987 barns. Within Oklahoma there are 112 operations with 449 barns, and there are 361 operations with 1,538 barns in Arkansas.


Map showing location of poultry barns in the Illinois Watershed

EWG detected over 470 poultry operations within the Illinois River watershed.


Once a presumed poultry operation was located, the 2016 imagery was compared to imagery from 2003 and 2013 to establish if the operation had previously existed, was newly created, or had expanded or contracted.


Operations were considered newly created if no poultry operation existed in 2003, but one was found in 2016. An operation was considered expanded if the number of poultry barns in 2016 was greater than the number of poultry barns in 2003. Operations were considered contracted if there were more poultry barns in 2003 than in 2016.

After creating a geographic location for all current poultry operation locations and associated barn counts, analysts tagged these locations if they were within one mile of rivers designated as scenic or outstanding resource waters. Geographic data representing the specified waterways was obtained from the Oklahoma Water Resources Board.

Map showing poultry barn within 1 mile of waterway

A poultry operation with three barns within one mile of the Upper Illinois River, an Oklahoma scenic river.

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